Planning a First Disney World Vacation
Several years ago I took my first trip across the country to Walt Disney World. As a lifelong Disneyland visitor going to Disney World, I didn’t think anything of going to this new-to-me Disney park. Wow, what a wake-up call that was! Not only are the Disney World parks totally different than Disneyland, procedures like Fastpass+ and Advance Dining Reservations vary dramatically.
As an example, in the excitement of my first Disney World trip I neglected to schedule the Magical Express bus back to the airport at the end of my vacation. A hurried taxi cab so we wouldn’t miss the flight and $80 later, I’d learned my lesson about not skimping on the Disney vacation research!
2020 Park Closure Notice
Please note that some of the park attractions and features mentioned in this article may be changed or amended in 2020. For additional details on Disney parks reopening as well as the thoughtful safety measures that the Disney resort hotels will be taking, read this post about taking kids to Disney parks after reopening.
Book Walt Disney World 2021 Now!
Disney World vacation packages have just reopened sales for 2020. In addition, you can now book ahead into 2021. Request a complimentary vacation quote through my travel partner Get Away Today.
Need to Know Before You Go!
This article will offer specific tips for planning your first Disney World trip. I’ll be talking about the four parks that make up the Disney World resort, creating a vacation budget, Magic Bands and lots more. If you’re going to Disneyland, be sure to read that post, Ultimate Guide to Planning a First Disneyland Vacation.
Do Your Pre-Planning Disney World Vacation Research
More so than Disneyland, which can be traveled more “spur of the moment”, Walt Disney World requires much more advanced planning. The Disney World resort is enormous (roughly the size of San Francisco) and made up of 4 theme parks and two water parks. So you don’t want to just show up without a plan! Planning for a trip to Disney World will begin months in advance. And while I’m not deep-diving into every single subject, this article will give you a decent overview on what you need to know!
Yes, planning a first Disney World trip can be overwhelming but it’s also a great way to get you in the Disney mood! Even a small amount of preparation can go a long way to maximizing your vacation. Embrace the research. Learn as much as you can about the WDW travel process. This will allow you to relax during the trip, knowing that you have everything under control! And there’s a concierge tip that will help you in the process, as I explain later in the article.
What Can You Do at Walt Disney World?
The large footprint of the Disney World Resort means that you can stay in the “Disney Bubble” during your entire trip. While Universal Studios Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando are nearby, there’s plenty of things to do on-site at Disney World. You could spend a month there and still not see everything!
The Disney World resort offers 4 different theme parks, two water parks, 20+ resort hotels, an outdoor shopping center and multiple golf courses. The hotels in themselves vary from value, moderate to deluxe and are spread out around the property, with amazing pools, scheduled entertainment and playgrounds for kids.
I’ve traveled to Disney World with my family several times and have included links to articles that may help in your vacation planning. The following sections include questions you should ask yourself when planning a first Disney World vacation.
What Time of Year are You Planning a Disney World Trip?
When choosing a specific travel date, each family weighs in with specific reasons. Depending upon school and work schedules, the decision on “when to go” might already be made for you. The sections below offer some considerations when scheduling a trip –
Weather Considerations – If you’re unfamiliar with Florida’s weather, check monthly weather trends. My SoCal kids, who are accustomed to dry summers in San Diego, were shocked at the thundering rain storms that drenched us in Orlando. If humid, hot and wet weather isn’t your thing, you’ll want to schedule your trip outside of summer and fall. Winter and spring at Disney World offer more ideal climate.
Crowd Levels – Certain times of year like when children are on school break, holiday seasons and weekends are more crowded than an “off season” visit. If you don’t have a choice to travel because of vacation breaks, go into the trip making adjustments and know that crowd levels might be higher.
Check the Calendar
Grand Openings – Crowds of super fans came to Disney’s Hollywood Studios for the grand opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. Follow the Disney Parks blog to see when new attractions are opening so that you can join in on opening day if you wish.
Seasonal Offerings – Disney World has some amazing seasonal events year-round that bring in the crowds. Epcot Flower & Garden Festival and the Food & Wine Festival are big attractions. Families love seasonal parties like Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party. Events like runDisney races and after-hours parties will cause heavier crowds as well.
What is Your Disney World Vacation Budget?
Figuring out the travel budget is a must-do before you can even schedule the trip. While this post is talking about Disneyland, the free printable checklist is still helpful when used towards budgeting for Disney World.
Several things to discuss when figuring out a travel budget:
- Driving or flying to get to Orlando?
- How many days will you spend on vacation?
- Where will you stay? Onsite Disney World hotels offer complimentary transportation from the airport as well as to the parks, which may aid in the decision making process.
- Will you need a rental car if you stay at an off-site hotel? What would be the cost of ride share or does the hotel offer a shuttle?
- Are you on a tight budget or splurging on your trip?
- Eating in the parks or packing in food? A big way to save money at Disney World is to budget food. Pack in personal water bottles and snacks then read these additional tips to save money on food at Disney parks.
- Will you purchase souvenirs, and what is the budget per family member?
How to Get Disney World Vacation Concierge Service
As I’ve mentioned, a Disney World vacation has a lot of moving parts. This includes booking Fastpass+ reservations, Advance Dining Reservations, and keeping up-to-date on price changes. What if there was someone to take care of ALL this for you, at no additional cost?
My travel partners at Get Away Today offer this concierge service and more, to anyone booking a Disney World vacation package. To request a complimentary Disney World vacation quote, complete the form and a friendly rep from Get Away Today will be in touch!
Best Ways to Research a First Disney World Vacation
The first place to start Disney World vacation research should be the official Disney World website. You can filter based on your dates to see the entertainment schedule and find out which rides and attractions are closed for refurbishment during your trip. View full dining menus and prices for restaurants (ideal when creating the trip budget).
Additional Disney World Vacation Research Musts
- Disney World vacation planning books can offer lots of information in one accessible book (buy an updated version).
- Personal blogs (like mine!) can offer personal advice and practical tips from a parent’s perspective.
- Listening to podcasts, like my friends Joe and Leslie on Disney Deciphered Podcast, can brush you up on a variety of deep-dive Disney World topics.
- Read more Disney travel tips on TravelingMom, where I’ve been a contributing author for years.
- Can’t find an answer to your Disney World question? Ask specific questions on the Disney Parks Moms Panel website, where you’ll receive a personalized response.
Choosing Where To Stay at Disney World
With 20+ on-site Disney World resort hotels there’s a variety of locations for every budget. Disney World hotels are grouped into several categories.
Value – Basic hotel rooms with less fancy accommodations. Pools do not have water slides and dining options are quick service only. Includes Pop Century, three All-Star hotels and Art of Animation.
Moderate – Slightly more upscale, with themed pools and full service dining available. Moderate hotel stays include Caribbean Beach, Port Orleans Riverside or French Quarter or Coronado Springs.
Deluxe – Elegant option, often with ideal locations (like the Contemporary, which is walk-able to Magic Kingdom’s front entrance). Full service dining, awesome pools and spa options. The Deluxe Category includes Wilderness Lodge, Polynesian, Grand Floridian, and Beach Club.
More Disney World Resort Discussion
Disney Vacation Club resorts – Renting Disney Vacation Club points is a budget-friendly option for those who aren’t DVC members. This only works if you’re planning your first Disney World trip extremely far in advance as the slots fill early. Locations include Sarasota Springs Resort, Riviera Resort and Old Key West.
Each location still receives the Disney perks of Extra Magic Hours and complimentary transportation to/from the Orlando International airport. These key perks alone often always sway me into choosing an on-site hotel.
Transportation on Disney World Property
Navigating the transportation in and around Disney World can be both magical and confusing! It’s important to have some understanding on how the different processes work so you can get where you need to be.
Magical Express bus transportation takes guests to and from the Orlando International Airport and Walt Disney World hotels. As I learned my lesson in the story earlier, a reservation is needed to use this service. No car seats required for kids so that’s one less thing to pack! And Magical Express will also take care of your luggage transfer from the airport directly to your hotel room via luggage tags you’ll receive in the mail.
How Do You Get to the Theme Parks?
The Monorail, resort shuttle buses, and boats are a wonderful way for guests to get around. These various forms of transportation will take you to the theme parks, water parks, and Disney Springs. Maps and signage at the station is usually clear. There are some transfers though so if you find anything confusing while you’re there, ask a cast member how to get where you need to go.
Additional transportation options include Minnie vans and ride-share (like Uber and Lyft). These are convenient ways to get around without a rental car or the potential crowds and waits for Disney transportation. You’ll want the app downloaded to your phone before your trip.
Considering an Off-Site Stay?
If the perks don’t add up for your family, think about staying at a non-Disney hotel. They are still within the Disney bubble and some are located extremely close to the parks. Other things to consider are price, convenience, space configurations and location. When working on your WDW vacation budget, think on these points:
- If your family prefers to have the use of a kitchen, book an off-site hotel at a timeshare like Wyndham Grand Orlando Resort Bonnet Creek. This location is also ideal for large families as these offer multiple rooms, washer and dryer and tons of space to spread out.
- Many of these resorts do not have an airport shuttle so you’ll likely need a rental car or pay out of pocket for ride share to the hotel.
- Planning lots of visits to Disney Springs? A walk-able location like Wyndham Garden Lake Buena Vista is a quick 10 minute walk from this popular shopping district.
- You will not receive a Magic Band when staying at an off-site Disney World hotel. If you want this perk to use in the parks, you’ll need to purchase one on ShopDisney before your trip.
Familiarize the Family with the Disney World Parks
While my family hasn’t been going to Disney World as long as Disneyland, we’re all still very familiar with the characters and theming of the parks. If you’re planning a first Disney World trip, you and your kids might not be as in-touch with Disney.
These are some ways to get more familiar with the 4 theme parks of the Disney World Resort:
- Create a profile in My Disney Experience on the Disney World website. This is where you’ll manage vacation plans, including linking park tickets, making FastPass+ reservations and more.
- Download the official Walt Disney World app to your smart phone. To be best prepared on a trip, play around on the app at home to familiarize yourself with it. Just like their website, you can spot ride locations, find out which attractions offer Rider Switch, see where characters greet, restaurant menus and more.
More Ways to Familiarize the Family
- Watch YouTube videos of Disney World attractions by searching “Disney World ride videos”. While some guests prefer not to “spoil” the trip by watching rides ahead of time, this can be a useful tool if you have kids who are nervous about new experiences.
- You definitely don’t have to watch every Disney movie ever made before your first Disney World vacation (though it is a fun way to pass the time!) A general familiarity with Disney characters can be helpful, especially when traveling with younger children. Watch a few relevant Disney movies before your trip to give first timers a bit of a background. This list of movies is especially designed for Disneyland, but can translate a bit for Magic Kingdom.
Who Are You Bringing on the Disney World Trip?
With so much to do and see at Disney World, the people in your vacation group will absolutely determine the kind of trip you’ll have. Families with babies and toddlers will have vacations that are dramatically different than those traveling with teens. Even more so if you’re traveling solo to Disney with a baby as I did with my daughter when she was 5-months old. Guests traveling with those who have special needs, disabilities or are pregnant will have a varied travel experience. I’m sharing below some notes with links, based on various ages and needs.
- Babies – A baby can ride anything at Disney World with their parent that does not have a height restriction. Disney World guests with a baby can also use Rider Switch, allowing adults to enjoy thrill rides while taking turns staying behind with the baby.
- Toddlers and Preschoolers – Disney World with a preschooler is a one-of-a-kind experience! Plan for plenty of time at Magic Kingdom with toddlers and preschoolers, as they’ll have plenty to do in this park. A stroller is a must-have and I highly recommend Kingdom Stroller rental.
Are You Bringing the Entire Family?
- Teenagers – For teens and thrill-seekers, Disney World is entertaining for all ages. These travel tips for teenagers will help!
- Pregnant – There’s still plenty for expectant mothers to do at Disney World while pregnant. Look for attractions that do not have height restrictions, which expectant moms can ride with their families.
- Special Needs & Disabilities- Traveling with someone who has autism, is seated in a wheelchair or has other special needs? Disney parks offer a Disability Assistance Service (DAS) which allows families (up to 6 members) an alternative waiting location or alternate queue access.
2020 UPDATE – In these uncertain times of travel, some families may make other arrangements, not taking kids to Disney World. This updated post discusses what you need to know about Disney parks reopening guidelines and safety measures.
Which Disney World Parks, Rides and Attractions Are Best for Your Family?
Each family needs to have a basic plan of the rides, attractions and shows they’ll want to see and do. The research sections earlier in this article will help each family member gather general knowledge about the rides and attractions.
- Once each person has a bit of research under their belt, ask what they want to do during the trip. Keep a notebook and write down the must-dos. You may not be able to accomplish all the things on this list. However the goal is to make sure each person is able to ride/do/see the top things on their list!
- Measure the heights of all the kids. Use the Disney World ride height requirements on their website to verify. This is especially important for thrill rides if your family has added them to the must-do list.
- View the maps online for each of the four parks. This will help you get an idea of location of attractions within the parks and note which attractions are inside each park (ie: Expedition Everest is inside Disney’s Animal Kingdom).
Is a Surprise Disney World Vacation a Good Idea?
There are lots of reasons why surprising kids with a Disney World trip isn’t always a great idea. While it can be fun to plan the surprise, it can also backfire, depending upon your child’s temperament. I usually steer parents away from the Disney World surprise vacation.
Much of the vacation enjoyment is in the planning process and anticipation of the trip! Let kids know about your vacation. Have children help you in the planning stages, allowing them to choose the color and design of their Magic Band. Prepping before a big trip is particularly important if you have children with special needs.
Here is a really cool way to tell kids you’re going to Disney World! Natalie and I received a complimentary Walt Life box filled with 6 Disney surprise items. They offer a “Surprise You’re Going to Disney!” box when you’re ready to tell the kids about an upcoming vacation. There are several other boxes that Walt Life will curate for you, including subscription boxes if you want to receive one each month. Click through to WALT LIFE and use code MOMREWRITTEN10 for $10 off your purchase!
Make Decisions As a Family Before Your Trip
Taking the first Disney World vacation alone? You can make some of your trip plans as you go. But if you’re taking this vacation with your family, you need a game plan in place. Some decisions need to be made before the trip. Everyone in your group will have expectations about what’s going to happen during their Disney World vacation. You want to keep that Disney magic going for everyone and fulfill those visions!
I’m my families biggest “Disney fan”. Often I plan our Disney days in my head without letting my husband know what’s going to happen! Naturally this can lead to major disappointment when the adults aren’t on the same page. I like to order food in the parks while my husband wants to pack our food in. He also prefers a mid-day break at the hotel for a swim and nap session. I want to stay out way after dark but he’s usually ready to leave after sunset. My last trip to Disney World with my husband resulted in a multi-hour afternoon trip to the grocery to get dinner supplies because he wanted to cook dinner in the timeshare’s kitchen! Didn’t discuss these things upfront before your trip? You’ll probably experience some major frustration!
Disney World Pre-Planning Family Must-Do
When planning a first Disney World vacation, these are the details to work out ahead of time with your group.
- Write down the top three things for each family member. Make sure that at least those happen during your trip, especially important when traveling with kids!
- For Disney World, keep all your travel plans in a single place with The Hidden Magic of Walt Disney World Planner: A Complete Organizer, Journal, and Keepsake for Your Unforgettable Vacation.
- Create a rough plan of your day. Include expected waking time, park arrival times, working in breaks back at the hotel during the day and approximate time you’ll leave at night.
More Family Planning Tips
- One of the best things about Disney World is all the amazing things to do outside of the theme parks! Work in off-days in-between park days to sleep in, resort hop, shop for souvenirs at Disney Springs, swim at the hotel pool or go to the Disney World Water Parks. Or will you explore other Orlando attractions including theme parks like Universal Orlando, SeaWorld Orlando or LEGOLAND?
- Dining is a huge factor when planning a first Disney World vacation. Full-service dining and character dining experiences are a big deal in the parks and the best reservations fill up early. Book Advance Dining Reservations 180 days ahead of your trip. Even with quick service meals, you should still plan on which restaurants and meals you’ll be eating so that the decision is already made beforehand. Decide also if you’ll be purchasing or packing in snacks and drinks.
Deciding on Walt Disney World Tickets
*Editor’s Note* As of this publication, Disney World tickets are not currently being sold for 2020. Admittance to Disney World begins July 11th, 2020 and is based on a reservation-only system with Annual Passholders and those with existing tickets having first priority.
A major decision to make when planning a first Disney World trip is which type of ticket to purchase. And of course you’ll need to figure out how many days you’ll be going to the theme parks. The Walt Disney World Resort is made up of 4 theme Parks – Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studio and Magic Kingdom. A multi-day ticket is the best value with a one-day peak ticket being the worst value.
Disney World Magic Bands – Changes in 2021
Those staying at a Disney World resort hotel have always received complimentary Magic Bands upon arrival. As of 2021, this item will no longer be included but can be purchased at an additional cost. These can be purchased pre-trip on ShopDisney.
Disney World tickets are linked to a Disney Magic Band, which my friend Leslie at Trips with Tykes explains in more detail. Conveniently, your Magic Band not only holds you park admission, but also can open your Disney resort hotel room and can be used for payments.
Questions to Ask About Disney World Tickets
- How many days total will you visit the theme parks?
- Will you stay in one Park for the entire day? The base Magic Your Way ticket is what you’ll want (no Park Hopping on this ticket).
- Will you purchase a Park Hopper that allows access to multiple Parks on the same day? Park Hopping definitely takes time out of your day via transportation transfer. But it can be beneficial to families that take a mid-day hotel break. They can start in one park, take a break and attend another theme park later in the day.
- Are you going to be visiting any of the Disney World water parks? The Disney World Park Hopper Plus is a great option. The “Plus” option is a punch card, of sorts. For as many days you have of park tickets, you have an equal number of punches allowed for either water parks, ESPN sports complex access, or miniature golf (ie: 4 day Park Hopper? You also have a total of 4 extra visits to the “plus” locations).
- Does purchasing an Annual Pass make better sense? For families who plan to return again within a year, the free parking, Memory Maker photos, and dining & hotel discounts, a Disney World AP may save you money versus traditional park tickets.
Insider Tips for Disney World Vacations
Chances are you know someone who has been to Disney World. Ask them for their tips and advice when planning your vacation. These are a few of the extra things you might not find on the Disney World website that will help make your trip more magical!
- Maximize your park time by arriving in the first two hours of opening. Arrive at “rope drop” before the gates open and plan to stay until the Park closes. These earlier morning and later evening night hours tend to be least busy and allow you quicker line access to your favorite rides.
- Before you pack up your luggage, read these tips for comfortable but cute clothes to wear at Disney World, with outfit suggestions for the entire family.
- The Disney Springs outdoor shopping district can be a fun place to spend an off-day, enjoying dining, shopping, live entertainment and family activities like bowling.
- Expect to stand in lines during your vacation? Check the wait times on the Disney World parks app ahead of your visit to watch regular queue times. See what helpful items you can bring in the parks to do while waiting in line at Disney World.